If you call for a boycott of a storied Boston landmark and it is still packed every day, is that a successful protest?
That might be the question facing organizer Kevin Peterson and the group of activists calling for the renaming of Faneuil Hall. After months of protests, demands for meetings and sit-ins, the idea of rebranding the pre-Revolutionary War landmark hasn’t gained much traction. To the contrary, support seems to be building instead for a counter-proposal of a public art installation devoted to exploring the site’s connection to slavery.
Coming to terms with the troubled history of Faneuil Hall is far from a frivolous notion. Peter Faneuil, who gave the building to the city in 1742, derived part of his fortune from the slave trade. He owned slaves. That slavery was legal at the time does nothing to cleanse Faneuil’s role in this country’s original sin. Rather, those facts just underscore the chasm between the nation’s founding ideals and the reality of the time.
But in a city rife with race-related issues — many of which were examined at length in a Globe Spotlight Team series last year — I think there are probably better uses of time and energy than renaming a tourist center. I would rather see more activism around the appalling racial gap in family net worth, or the achievement gap in schools, or the crisis in unsolved homicides, than spending months debating a new name for Faneuil Hall.
I asked Peterson — a longtime activist and the executive director of the New Democracy Coalition — what he hoped the focus on renaming Faneuil Hall would accomplish.
“Renaming Faneuil Hall is highly symbolic and extremely important in addressing continuing issues of racial antagonism in the city of Boston,” Peterson said.
Peterson has called for renaming Faneuil Hall for Crispus Attucks, an African-American who was slain by the British in 1770, and regarded as the first man to die for our country.
As you may know, the city has responded with a different idea altogether. Artist Steve Locke — one of the city’s artists-in-residence — had proposed an installation at the site called “Auction Block Memorial at Faneuil Hall” that would recognize and represent its connection to slavery.
To Peterson, that idea is a dodge, and an attempt by Mayor Marty Walsh and other city leaders to avoid confronting history head-on. Peterson called the idea of Locke’s installation “cynical.”
“We asked for something positive, and (Walsh) offered us a slave memorial,” Peterson said. “That doesn’t start the conversation in a positive way.”
But if the goal is to prompt a discussion about race in the city, why is renaming Faneuil Hall the only valid way to do that?
One thing I have learned in the aftermath of the Spotlight Team series is that Boston does indeed want to have a conversation about race. The members of the team — myself included — gave dozens of talks to all kinds of civic, religious, and professional groups. A Facebook group inspired by the series has over 4,000 members — and people continue to join, months after the pieces appeared.
People in Boston want to find a way to move forward, and they want to figure out how to do that. I know: I’ve sat before hundreds and hundreds of them discussing that very topic.
What we really need is to figure out what that conversation should be about. We are home to the inequities that plague many other major cities, overlaid with a deeply troubled racial history. Look no further than the resegregation of the Boston Public Schools to see how we struggle to maintain any sense of momentum on issues of race.
Without question, Boston needs to come to terms with issues of race and equity, past and present. We need a conversation — and we need to figure out how to move beyond conversation. That’s more important to me than renaming Faneuil Hall.